Spain launched an operation Saturday to repatriate Spanish aid workers from Saharawi refugee camps in Algeria due to "well-founded indications" of possible attacks by northern Mali terrorist groups, Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said.

The government sent an air force plane to pick up Spanish aid workers along with their colleagues from other countries and fly them back to Spain early Sunday.

The minister made the announcement at a press conference in Madrid, during which he said that two aid workers - one of them a Peruvian - had returned Friday by their own means.

A total of 15 will return aboard the Spanish aircraft, including two French citizens and an Italian. One Spaniard chose to remain in the area.

According to the minister, the government took that decision based on signs that the primary targets of possible terrorist attacks in the region are Spanish citizens.

He said the repatriation began Friday when two of the workers were taken to the security of a militarized base where they awaited the arrival of the air force plane, which took off around noon Saturday from the Torrejon de Ardoz air base in Madrid.

The minister thanked Algerian authorities and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front - which has spent decades resisting Morocco's annexation of the Western Sahara - for their cooperation in the process of regrouping the aid workers and transporting them to safety.

He also alerted non-governmental organizations to the danger of staying in that area right now.

He recalled that this is where two kidnapped Spanish aid workers were freed last week after nine months in captivity.

Margallo said that some analysts predict that northern Mali could become the new Afghanistan as a base for terrorists.

Margallo repeated Spain's commitment to the Saharawi refugee camps and said he has faith that humanitarian work can be resumed there before long.

Last July 19 the Spanish aid workers Ainhoa Fernandez de Rincon and Enric Gonyalons, and the Italian Rossella Urru, were freed after being abducted Oct. 22 from the Saharawi refugee camp at Tindouf and taken to northern Mali by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, a branch of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb. EFE